Who Gets to Play?

Aly Kanji, CEO & President, InsureLine, and IBABC Past President

I was a recent participant at IBAC’s Hill Day in Ottawa. Hill Day is one day a year when insurance brokers from across Canada gather on Parliament Hill to meet with MPs and Senators to discuss issues important to insurance brokers and to share the great work that brokers do in our communities and for Canada as a whole. I’ve never been prouder to be a broker than participating in the Hill Day events. One of the feature events of Hill Day is a dinner that IBAC organizes for all broker attendees and provincial association staff at the historic Rideau Club in Ottawa. At this year’s dinner I remember looking around the room noticing that I was the only person of colour among the attendees. The only other people of colour in the room were the servers. 

As a visible minority, you get good at scanning the room trying to find other people that might be more like you. I have been doing this since I was in grade school—checking out my classmates and teammates for other brown kids. As I got older I did it in my workplaces. Perhaps searching for other people that look like you has never crossed your mind. We all want to be with people that are like us, or said differently, people tend to avoid those that are not like them. This is human nature and knowing and understanding these unconscious biases are critical to appreciating why diversity programs exist.

If I were to ask you if you have gender or ethnic biases you would likely vehemently tell me that you don’t. Yet, who do we ask to take notes at a meeting? Who do we ask for help to move the heavy boxes that were just delivered to the office? Who loads the dishwasher in your office?

We all know that insurance is a proverbial traditional industry—it’s slow to change and adapt, and embracing diversity in the industry has been no different. Here in mid-2022, why am I the only visible minority representing brokers in Ottawa? Surely the group of brokers in Ottawa was not representative of the more than 38,000 P&C brokers working on the front lines across Canada? I’m proud to note that IBAC just initiated Robyn Young as the third female President in its 100-year history, but it’s still very rare to see women in leadership roles, and even less often that we see visible minorities in leadership positions. While the insurance industry has improved, we still have a long way to go.

Diversity creates solutions that are more creative and original. The benefit of having diversity within any organization is to provide perspective—diversity of experience, diversity of expertise, and diversity of mindsets. And it would be a mistake to assemble people who don’t deserve to be there—we live in a meritocratic society and those that sit at the decision-making table have to be worthy to be there on their own merit. 

Yet we tend to hire people who remind us of ourselves. If your organization doesn’t have diversity within it, why not? Are you conscious of the culture that your organization creates? Chances are the culture within your organization will be a function of the diversity within your group. Do the customers you serve look like the people serving them? How do the people you serve look compared to your leadership team?

In Canada in 2018, more than 22% of the population identified as a visible minority, while only 5.9% of the board of directors in Financial Post 500 organizations were people of colour. We’re no better at gender diversity: only 15% of board seats are held by women. Yet, statistics show that women drive 70–80% of economic spending, making economic decisions for their families through their buying power and influence. Shouldn’t women leaders then be critical for a business to market appropriately to the gender that is driving purchasing choices?

I know for a fact that insurance brokers in Canada include a very diverse set of individuals. But when I look down the table at an association board meeting, the people around the table are not representative of our population or even those in our industry. It’s easy to make the excuse that these are volunteer positions and if minorities don’t want to volunteer then we can’t force them to be part of the Association. Of course, we want all of them to be members and we’re happy to receive their membership dues. But if people don’t feel welcome, why would they offer to volunteer? And if they don’t volunteer, how will their voices and perspectives be heard?

As a simple example of how we might not be welcoming everyone: the insurance industry has a disproportionate share of golf events. Aside from playing mini-golf, the first time I went to a golf course and actually attempted to play golf was when I was almost 20-years-old and preparing for a future as a practising lawyer. I tried hard to learn how to golf and I tried hard to like golf but the truth is I have never enjoyed it. Similarly, many people don’t drink alcohol and even more are vegetarians. How inviting is a golf event full of booze and a roast beef dinner for someone who doesn’t golf, drink, or eat meat? I’m not suggesting for one second that we shouldn’t have golf events, or that we should refrain from serving alcohol and meat. But we must ask ourselves how can we factor diversity within our industry when developing future events.

People from different cultures, backgrounds and genders offer their own strengths and abilities. We also need to be aware of generational diversity. For the first time in human history we have five generations in the workplace at the same time. Age diversity also offers differing perspectives, especially when we understand the biases and experiences that have shaped each generation. Building a strong team with analytical depth requires drawing on all of these varying capabilities as strengths. 

Failure to build diversity will result in groupthink—the phenomenon where we all pat ourselves on the back for sharing the same thoughts and ideas. The group reaches consensus without any critical reasoning or evaluation of the consequences or alternatives, and creativity, individuality and contrarian views are discouraged. Groupthink has been responsible for the collapse of multi-national corporations and governments, because the leader brought people in like themselves who cheered on their ideas until the organization ultimately failed. Is that the type of organization you want to be a part of? Ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform those with homogenous teams. Simply put, greater diversity leads to greater success.

While the insurance industry has improved in embracing diversity, it still has a long way to go. It’s not just brokerages—insurers, regulators and our own associations need to take a long look in the mirror. Associations have a lot of work ahead if it intends to remain relevant to the constituency that it serves. The leadership of every organization decides who gets to play. The decisions we make, the people we hire, the events we host and the conversations we have all have an impact. 

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